Columns » John Brummett

Wal-Mart's only a symptom

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Ralph Nader proclaimed last week that Wal-Mart is a "cancer on the economy." He was horribly wrong. The American economy has thrived during Wal-Mart's 30-year rise to total retail dominance. The company employs hundreds of thousands of people who might not work otherwise. It enriches countless others who hold stock. It graces millions of consumers with time-saving convenience and money-saving prices. And it provides a powerful gravitational field for vendors, other big-box retailers and assorted ancillary enterprises. Now, if Nader had called Wal-Mart a cancer on the culture, he would have been closer to truth. But to be precise, he'd have needed to call Wal-Mart only one of the more powerful manifestations of a spreading cancer. You cannot say that the automobile started this American disease. You can say, though, that the motor car began the weakening of the immune system. Then came the real cancer - racial separation. In the 1950s and '60s, white people of means got into those cars and drove them on Dwight D. Eisenhower's new super highways, meaning the bloodstream through which the cancer spread. These white people fled integrated public schools, once-vibrant downtown business districts and once-idyllic central city neighborhoods. They pursued suburban seclusion. Shopping centers naturally followed. Next came a new emphasis on economies of scale and time in a work-crazed and profit-obsessed culture. Time became much more of the essence because of gridlocked traffic commutes in automobiles along these superhighways. Money could be saved and productivity enhanced by businesses if they consolidated. Consumers could share the savings. Super-stores replaced specialty stores. Conglomerates replaced independents. So into this mix came a man from the opposite direction, from small-town America, named Sam Walton. He had a knack for five-and-dime retailing and a strategy to develop mass merchandising discount stores in rural areas. More precisely, he went not into the rural towns, but to their outer edges. In time Wal-Mart and urban sprawl came together geographically and culturally. What if he had decided to buy abandoned downtown property instead of building warehouses on barren outskirts? Might that have countered this cancer? You can't justifiably say that. Acquisition of undeveloped land was cheaper. Walton could build to his own famously Spartan standards and for his specific needs. Most importantly, he could make the required concession to the pre-existing cultural pathology by pouring concrete for free parking lots for those damnable motor cars. All along the Wal-Mart model was to pay relatively low wages, squash union notions and limit employee benefits to the bare essentials. There are those - sociologists and such - who make a devastating cultural observation. They say that in the preceding generations, emerging American business giants such as General Motors always enhanced wages and fringe benefits, but that Wal-Mart is the first to lead the other way. It's powerfully true that the growing gap between the rich and poor is nowhere more evident than in the contrast of major Wal-Mart stockholders and every-day Wal-Mart shoppers. But the pro-executive, anti-union, benefit-stingy modern American business culture is one that transcends any one company, even Wal-Mart. It's the result of business-first political thinking that, with a couple of brief interruptions, has dominated America for three decades. As for environmental and cultural damage from urban sprawl, Wal-Mart could hardly be blamed. Sam Walton could only be faulted for rural sprawl. Then he looked up and saw urban sprawl coming out to him. Wal-Mart is not a cancer on the economy. And it is not the real cancer on the culture. It is only a mighty, mighty symptom.

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